You Don't Know Jazz with Dr. Lewis Porter: Jazz on Film
November 9, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
This is the latest in our regular series of blog features, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.
(PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)
Some Revelations about Two Jazz Films, plus Citizen Kane!
Dr. Porter reveals some unknown facts about jazz on film, plus Citizen Kane. Read on!
Of course, I’m most active as a jazz pianist and jazz scholar, but I do have other areas of interest: one area where I’ve also spent a great deal of time after jazz is film, followed by classical and world music.
In this blog I’m presenting three of my own discoveries from the world of film. The first two are jazz-related, while the third is a bonus: I reveal an influence on perhaps the most famous film of all time, Citizen Kane, a connection that I don’t believe has ever been noted before.
1. Jammin’ The Blues
Jammin the Blues is one of the most admired short films in the history of jazz, partly because it is one of the few film records of the legendary tenor Lester “Pres” Young, about whom I have published two books.
Filmed in August 1944 by famed still photographer Gjon Mili, Jammin’ the Blues is equally famous for its visual artistry.
Pres and the other musicians, such as trumpeter Harry Edison and guitarist Barney Kessel, recorded the soundtrack in a studio before Mili began filming. During the days of filming, the recordings were played back numerous times, and Mili asked the musicians to try and match or "mime” their work on the recordings every time.
Perhaps because Mili's background was in still photography, he tended to stage the shots - that is, he would set everything up artistically the way he wanted it, put the camera in place and film, not moving the camera within each shot. Then he edited the shots together, and they are pretty well coordinated with the music.
It is a bit humorous to note that while Edison, Kessel and others do a good job of matching their fingerings to the pre-recorded music – Edison said later in a filmed interview that he made a real effort to do that - Pres doesn’t seem to be trying at all. In the very first shot, Pres’s fingers show he's playing a different solo from what you hear.
This is the most famous shot of the whole film: at first, all you see is an abstract, a circle within a circle. After the opening credits, these circles start to move, and we realize that these circles are in fact the rims of Young’s famed porkpie hat.
Young’s "porkpie" hat was his trademark, which he created by taking a dress hat and folding it down in a certain way. He actually demonstrated how he did this in a pictorial essay in Ebony magazine:
The one public figure who was closely identified with a porkpie hat before Pres was comic film actor and director Buster Keaton. In fact, I have noticed that this famous opening shot of Jammin' the Blues was based on the opening shot of a 1923 short film by Keaton, The Balloonatic! I think of it as Mili's tribute to Keaton, probably inspired by the fact that both artists wore porkpie hats.
Not only does Keaton’s film contain the same shot, but the shot is the opening shot of the film, as it is in Mili's film, and it is lit with dramatic contrast, as in Mili’s film.
I’ve never seen the relationship between these two films noted before.
2. The Blue Gardenia
The Blue Gardenia is a 1953 American film by the noted Vienna-born director, Fritz Lang (1890-1976). This isn't a jazz film, but one of its most famous scenes revolves around Nat "King" Cole, who appears in the film playing the piano and singing the film’s theme song.
Let me summarize the plot of this scene. A woman has just learned that her boyfriend has found somebody else, so she agrees to go on a date with someone new, an artist, played by Raymond Burr, later well-known to television audiences as Perry Mason and Ironside.
This artist takes her first to a bar, where Nat Cole sings and plays “Blue Gardenia,” then to his apartment to see his paintings. He plays a recording of this same song as background music. He then tries to rape her, and she defends herself, apparently killing him.
The "Blue Gardenia" theme re-appears in the background, now distorted and anxious. Krin Gabbard, an expert on jazz films and professor at SUNY in Stony Brook, NY, has written perceptively of this scene, and we thank him for providing a clip of this key scene.
Nobody before now has noted that it is Lang's "homage" to his contemporary, the monumentally influential British-born director Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).
Hitchcock's first film with sound, in 1929, was called Blackmail. In fact, Hitchcock filmed a silent version more or less simultaneously. It revolves around a long scene whose premise is precisely the same as the Lang scene, even down to the fact that the date is a painter, and that the musical theme appears in distorted form after the murder.
Perhaps Lang noticed a similarity between the script he was shooting and Hitchcock's classic, and decided to emulate it, even discussing this with the music composer for the film. In the Hitchcock film, the musical theme is played by the artist himself at the piano, not on a recording.
You can compare the two scenes for yourself:
If you would like to watch Hitchcock's entire film, you can find it here.
3. Citizen Kane
You might think that there is nothing more to learn about Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ amazing 1941 film, which has been praised and scrutinized countless times. But there is something unusual in a scene towards the end of the film which caught my eye.
In this scene, Kane's wife leaves him, and, standing alone in her room, he snaps – in his rage, he destroys all her little trinkets, turns over shelves, as he moves stiffly around the room like a Frankenstein monster--and that's the key.
Welles sometimes spoke disparagingly of the Kane character that he played so brilliantly, and had fun hiding a number of "insider" references into this, his first feature film. This is one such reference: the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein has a similar scene, where the monster destroys a roomful of items. Watch in particular how the monster moves when he strides across the room at about 0:20, and compare it to the way Kane moves. This is another of Welles's methods of "deflating" his Kane character.
The other revealing similarity is that in the Welles film, Kane suddenly stops when he comes across a snow globe that, we learn later, reminds him of his youth. In Son Of Frankenstein, the monster discovers a children's book of Fairy Tales, and that's what calms him down. By the way, Boris Karloff was a marvelous English actor, great at the Frankenstein monster and great in non-monster roles as well.
STAY TUNED for the next installment of this blog! Lewis
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